This should be a simple question: Two golfers are discussing the state of their games ahead of a major championship. One is brimming with confidence. The other sounds iffy.
Which player is the safer bet?
Seriously, this is a debate? you might ask. In fact, yes.
A worthy case study has presented itself in Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 2022 U.S. Open champion who on Monday painted a particularly bleak picture of his prospects heading into the season’s final men’s major at Royal Liverpool. Noting his lackluster record in the Open, “my weakest major,” Fitzpatrick conceded, “my expectations have probably got to match my results.”
But it wasn’t just that. Fitzpatrick has been struggling everywhere of late. So he said that if he finished in the top 30 come Sunday at Hoylake, that would be a good showing.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been in the best form, so I've got to be realistic about where I am,” he said.
Of the two ways to interpret these remarks, one is painfully obvious. Fitzpatrick doesn’t like his chances because he doesn’t have a very good chance. He is indeed playing poorly. As Golf Digest’s Luke Kerr-Dineen noted, Fitzpatrick’s driving accuracy has plummeted to 125th on the PGA Tour compared to 50th last year. A pro golfer has an acute sense of when he doesn’t have it, and Fitzpatrick, at least relative to his form, is still searching.
But therein lies an opportunity that borders on paradoxical. In recent years I’ve written about the unique benefits of low expectations, and one of them is how the 72-hole slog of a golf tournament is parsed into a series of one-shot increments. Rather than waste energy mulling one’s position against the field or an event’s career implications, a struggling golfer is more likely to limit his focus to finding the center of the club face or some other modest, manageable goal.
This is the optimal foundation for any successful performance anyway. A favorite example: At the 2017 Bridgestone Invitational, Hideki Matsuyama’s warm-up session prior to his final round was a mess, and he proceeded to pull his opening tee shot into the rough. Then he went on to shoot 61 and win by five.
“You are suddenly a little sharper,” the sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo has said of these moments. “You’re not careless in the way a player with illusions of competence who thinks he can control everything would be.”
Which brings us to our other hypothetical player, the can’t-miss pick. Again, sometimes it isn’t complicated. A golfer is often upbeat about his chances because he has command of his game, or a positive track record to draw on.
Rory McIlroy has both this week. Fresh off his win last week at the Genesis Scottish Open, McIlroy also won the last major played at Hoylake in 2014. That he is supposed to play well this week is precisely the problem.
Rory McIlroy has to feel good about his chances at Royal Liverpool, where he won the Open in 2014, after also winning last week's Scottish Open.
Here, for example, was McIlroy’s assessment of his game prior to this year’s Masters:
“I feel like I am as good, if not better a player, as I was the last time I won a major championship. So, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” McIlroy said. “I'm feeling as sort of relaxed as I ever have coming in here just in terms of I feel like my game is in a pretty good place. I know the place just about as well as anyone.”
McIlroy missed the cut.
Prior to this year’s U.S. Open, Max Homa was also optimistic having set the course record at L.A. Country Club as a senior at Cal.
“It’s definitely a bit of an advantage,” Homa said.
Homa missed the cut as well.
How does this happen? Well, for starters, it’s golf. It isn’t a one-dimensional test of strength or speed, when a physical advantage is far more likely to prevail from one day to the next. But it’s also because inflated expectations tend to have the inverse effect of low ones. If the struggling golfer is forced to limit his focus to whatever’s in front of him, the overly confident golfer often contends with more distraction and allows himself less room for error.
"Certainly, too much confidence, or overconfidence, leads to lazy shots. You just assume you're going to play well all the time," Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, said. "There are tons of stories of guys leading up to the Masters, and they can't miss a shot, and their families come in, and all of a sudden they shoot five over on the front nine. It creates a lazy head space because you're just sure good things are going to happen."
So back to our original question. It seems logical that the golfer riding a hot streak will finish ahead of the one mired in a slump. But when the script flips, it often happens for a reason.
Myles Gilbert contributed to this report.
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Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.